Pissoirs: The History of Public Urinals in Paris
Can you guess what the picture above is? I’ll give you two clues; it was once a common sight throughout Paris and it is bathroom related. It won’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to figure it out, although you may wish you hadn’t. The name given to it is the pissoir (also known as a vespasienne) and, again, it’s not hard to figure out what it’s used for by that name alone. You may be surprised to know that such installations made Paris the most modern city in the world, not that it took much to do that back in the 1800’s.
Walk around in pretty much any European city on a Saturday night and you’ll be sure to catch someone urinating in public. In the UK such dirtiness is punished through fines, but that doesn’t stop people from doing it. Over in France, Paris has had a ban in place since the 1700’s, but it did nothing for Paris’ reputation as being one of the dirtiest cities of the period. The situation became so bad, with people openly doing their business in the street, that ‘barrels of easement’ were placed on street corners throughout the city for people to do their leavings in. It wasn’t the ideal solution to a disgusting problem and these days it would be quite shocking to see such a thing happening, but I suppose it was better than simply doing it on the cold stone of the street. By the 1850’s, Napoleon III had finally had enough of the situation and commissioned Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann to make Paris the most modern city in the world. One of these attempts at modernisation was to start giving the male Parisian a place to pee, instead of simply doing it on the nearest wall.
The Advent of the Pissoir
The idea for Pissoirs, basically public urinals, was first thought up in 1834 by Claude-Philibert Barthelot, comte de Rambuteau, but they didn’t become a common sight until Haussmann started having them installed across Paris. They took the form of green steel columns that had a screen circling a metal core. As you can see from the photo (photographed by Charles Marville, who had been commissioned by Napoleon III to document the transformation of Paris into a modern city) it didn’t provide a massive amount of privacy, but since the torso area of the male remained covered it saved other Parisians from accidentally glimpsing his private parts. Moreover, it helped clean up the streets of the mess caused by stale urine once the Pissoirs began to catch on. I doubt these public urinals were especially fragrant, but at least the smell was concentrated in specific areas rather than throughout the entire city.
The Decline of the Pissoir
Pissoris were still a common sight into the 1930’s, with around 1,200 dotted around Paris. There are some reports to suggest that they were used by the French Resistance during World War II as places to meet for a private conversation or to leave a message for someone without the Nazi’s finding out (I remember playing the game The Saboteur, which is set during World War II and uses these urinals as hiding places). By the 1960’s Paris had begun to phase them out, ultimately resulting in only one of them still standing to this day. It’s not looking in great shape, defaced with graffiti and peeling paint, but you can still make out the impressive classical design work that went into creating somewhere to pee. However, it is still used and the locals seem proud of that fact that they have the last one in the city.
When you start doing research on things like this it’s constantly amazing just how many people will write about such obscure topics. For myself I’m just happy to see that other people have just as much love for obscure facts as I do, and when it comes to bathrooms it seems that everyone has strong opinions on what constitutes a comfortable experience to relieve one’s self. The Paris toilets have never been up there with the best urination experiences the world has to offer (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence), but from the research I’ve gathered whilst writing this post it seems that Paris’ toilets have got a lot better since the days of the first Pissoirs.
If you’re in Paris anytime soon you can view the above photo, plus many other pieces of Charles Marville’s work, in a current exhibition at the National Gallery of Art.
Sanisette image by Agateller on Wikipedia. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.
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